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‘Soulies of Milgarden’ and the Message of Tolerance

A young giraffe’s journey into an unknown world teaches a simple but powerful lesson of tolerance.

It’s been some time since a 12-minute short held my attention for more than a few minutes, let alone for its entirety. 12 minutes can be an eternity when you’re watching a short film. Even a pretty good one.  And while admittedly, I’m hardly the target audience for a children’s film, (admonitions from my kids about childish parenting instincts notwithstanding) I recently came across a 12-minute short that not only captured my attention, but held it very gently and effectively.

It’s worth noting upfront that the film, Soulies of Milgarden, from an original story written and designed by Allison Milgard, is produced by long-time AWN blogger and friend, animation veteran Milt Vallas. And though I was happy to take a look at his film, by no means did that guarantee I could actually sit through it sans grimace and agitated foot tapping. Milt wanted my honest opinion and I was happy to oblige – I thoroughly enjoyed Allison’s take on issues such as belonging, rejection and social intolerance, all set within a colorful make-believe world of giraffes and other forest creatures.

Curious about the origin of the story and what Allison and Milt planned on doing with the film, I recently spoke to them about how the short was made and what the future might hold in store now that the project was complete.

Dan Sarto: How did this project come about? What is the genesis of the film?

Milt Vallas: The film was born from a few of Allison Milgard’s doodles, with the initial concept forming around Allison’s feelings that everyone needs to embrace tolerance and celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.  On the recommendation of friends in the film and media business, she began working with a gentleman who brought me aboard to help produce the animation.  In turn I brought Kent Butterworth on to direct the film and Evelyn Gabai to write the script with Allison.

Allison Milgard: The characters came to life while I was living among many “pet farm” animals on a ranch in Southern California. I was inspired by this mystical, fantastical place, and my characters were inspired by all the animals living on that ranch. I couldn’t quite draw the type of horse I envisioned initially, so in my drawings, they became giraffes. The ranch provided me with an endless supply of visual beauty and adventure. I took this wonderful and adventurous place and turned it into an animated world.

Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles and after a few years, met the talented Milt Vallas and Kent Butterworth…and the Soulies of Milgarden came to life. The film represents an expression of my passion to inspire children through art, music and imagination.

Kent Butterworth: From my perspective, my goal as a director was to show Allison’s creations as she imagined them and to help her create the ‘World of Milgarden.’

DS: All told, how long did the film take to make? What type of team did you put together and how did you handle the production?

MV: Initially, we struck a deal with a Hungarian studio to produce the physical animation and help with some of the pre-production work as well.  Our L.A. crew originally was Kent Butterworth, Evelyn Gabai, our IT guy and me.  We found the Hungarian studio very competent and had no complaints with the work. But the distance and time zone differences made it hard to keep Allison firmly in the loop. Unlike a series project, this was very much a personal film and needed to reflect subtle nuances and exploration that at times required important changes.  In the end we decided to take on more of the pre-production in L.A. so Allison could work directly with the artists and exchange ideas in real time. As Allison was new to animation, we went through a process where she interacted with everyone involved to help translate her designs and the film’s concept from script to post-production. 

I should also note that the project initially ground to a halt after the first three months because the film had somehow, inadvertently slipped away from the original concept.  The gentleman that first brought me on and had created the deal with the Hungarian studio had, with the best intentions, pushed the script in a direction that didn’t seem to work.  Allison felt that changes were needed and she and Evelyn came back together and reworked the script.  The decision to perform the pre-production in L.A. was also made at that time. After a few other adjustments, within a short time we began to hire local artists and colorists to work on the film here [Los Angeles].

The entire project took over a year including the stops and restarts.  Our L.A. staff included one storyboard artist (Erben Datablan) cleaning up Kent’s roughs and also creating model packs from Allison’s original designs, one colorist (Soledad Luongo) who worked on backgrounds as well as characters, one prop and layout artist (Aaron Crippen) and Bryce Marck acting as production assistant and IT guy combined.  We worked on Mac’s and Cintiqs.  Inspedia Studio in Malaysia did the animation production in Flash.

KB: The rough storyboards were scanned and cleaned by Erben using a Cintiq and Storyboard Pro. I created X-sheets and the final animatics with voice-over and music Storyboard Pro as well.  Pre-production took longer than the production, which was roughly three months from start to finish. 

DS: What were the biggest challenges you faced on the project?

AM: This being my first animated project made it a bit tricky at times trying to understand the lingo that thee long-time veterans used on a daily basis. These guys are pros and extremely experienced. Luckily, they were very patient with me.

MV: We actually cast and recorded the show twice.  The first recording went from the script that eventually we concluded had wandered off and away from Allison’s main story concept.  We all thought long and hard about making changes, with Allison struggling at first to take in everyone’s ideas and balance all the input against what intuitively she knew needed to be done.  As I said before, the decision was made to pause, catch our breath and for Allison and Evelyn to work together to get the script back to where it needed to be.  Fortunately Allison and Evelyn had a great relationship and were able to complete a rewrite that took the script back to the core story.  

Both casts were talented and gave a solid performance but on the second go around we had the luxury of reconsidering our original casting choices, which had been a bit rushed and controlled by a third party. With more time to decide, we elected to bring in Donna Grillo to help recast and direct the recording session.

In our first incarnation we had a very accomplished composer involved and he wrote a few sample themes that we liked. But the question always came back to did this work fit the spirit of the story we wanted to tell?  Once the project was paused we had the opportunity to reconsider the direction of the music as well and asked Heather Reid, a very talented singer and songwriter, to write and perform a theme song and to score the film.  When we first heard the theme song we all knew instantly we had made the right decision.  Her vocals echoed the feel and the simple charm of the story perfectly.

We recorded the final tracks at Riverton Productions in North Hollywood and posted the film at Studiopolis in Burbank. 

All of these changes and rethinks were challenging, but the additional effort made the film much better without a doubt. However, none of this would have happened if Allison had not been willing to bear the expenses of doing so.

DS: It sounds like the film you finally finished is very different from the film you initially set out to make.

AM: The film took many twists and turns from where it originally started. It began with the group of giraffes in a fantastical house. Smalls [the film’s main character] eventually finds her way out into the great wild world outside the house, interacting with characters besides other giraffes. Basically, she went on a great adventure. There were many other characters in the original story concept that didn’t make it into the final film.

MV: We have a whole world still to explore and so many great characters waiting in the wings dying to get on stage. 

DS: So what are the plans now? What are you next steps with this property?

AM: Our goal now is to take the film and make it into a TV series.

MV: At this point we are focused on branding and exploring possible partnerships in the world of children’s programming.

Our plans went through several changes and directions as we considered what the next step might be.  Initially, we were looking to create a personal film, a platform to speak to a young audience.  We considered working with PBS or other public institutions to offer the film and associated material, looking to share the ideas of not judging others so quickly or categorizing them.  Meetings were held and interest shown but we were often torn trying to deal with too many possibilities. 

We did some double and triple thinking and always came back to our core concept - this was and is Allison’s film and that had to be our prime concern and motivator. We entered the film in a few festivals, won an award of excellence in the Los Angeles “Best Shorts Competition” and are now pleased to have been accepted in the Madrid International Film Festival to be held in July.

At the close of a long day, this film was always Allison’s and her willingness to entertain numerous opinions and to affect changes when she felt they were needed made this a very special project. 


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.